Over the following decade, as the country descended into civil war, faced the loss of Abraham Lincoln, and began the project of Reconstruction, The Atlantic put its founding principles to the test, covering the Civil War era with an overt and consistent abolitionist bent but also presenting a variety of perspectives on the contentious period.
The impending national conflict made no appearance in the magazine’s first issue, but abolitionist reformer Edmund Quincy faced it head on in the second. In “Where Will It End?” he issued an emphatic critique of slavery, denigrating the South for its moral and cultural failings and calling on Northerners to make a forceful stand for freedom.
Three years later, in October 1860, founding editor James Russell Lowell penned and published a ringing endorsement for Abraham Lincoln’s presidential candidacy in “The Election in November.” Though he hailed Lincoln as a “statesman” and praised him for his “ability” and “integrity,” Lowell’s expression of support was contextual rather than personal, rooted in a fierce, and clearly voiced, opposition to slavery.
Lowell returned to the pages of The Atlantic mere months later, after Confederate soldiers started the war by firing on Union forces at Fort Sumter, to detail the opening salvos of the conflict and decry the Confederate Rebellion in “The Pickens-and-Stealin’s Rebellion.” He framed the young Civil War in the same moral terms as he had the election in November, asserting: “We cannot think that the war we are entering on can end without some radical change in the system of African slavery.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the magazine’s founders, lent his own voice to the abolitionist cause in April 1862’s “American Civilization.” From the time of his presidential campaign, President Lincoln had prioritized national unity and called only for the containment, rather than the end, of slavery in the United States. But in a lecture at the Smithsonian Institution, in conversations with Lincoln himself, and, finally, in the pages of The Atlantic, Emerson argued, like Lowell, that slavery was central to the war, and asserted that emancipation was both a moral imperative and the only means of ending the conflict once and for all.
Less than six months later, on September 22, 1862, Lincoln declared in the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam:
On the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforth, and forever free.
In “The President's Proclamation,” published in our November 1862 issue, Emerson applauded the pronouncement. Emancipation, he reiterated, was the war’s real moral purpose, and the proclamation would assure that “the lives of our heroes have not been sacrificed in vain.”